India vs China: Is Narendra Modi’s ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ Winning Against Xi Jinping’s ‘Cloud Diplomacy’?

Can Narendra Modi’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ win against Xi Jinping’s ‘cloud diplomacy’? Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hailed ‘cloud diplomacy’ as the key takeaway in China’s foreign relations in 2020, highlighting President Xi Jinping’s role in offering ‘unwavering support’ to the global community to tide over the Covid-19 pandemic.   

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The Chinese President has been organizing virtual meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders and heads of international organizations, promising his support during the pandemic, as well as global cooperation on the research, development, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

In what the Chinese media calls “cloud diplomacy”, Xi had 80 phone calls with foreign leaders and heads of international organizations and attended 22 important diplomatic events, through the innovative ‘virtual platform.’ According to China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the President’s diplomatic engagements have helped build global consensus on Covid-19 and pointed out the way forward for China’s foreign policy.

Even at international forums such as the World Health Assembly, the UN high-level meetings, and the G20 Leaders’ Summit, Xi called on countries concerned to step up exchanges on epidemic monitoring, scientific research, and disease control and treatment while opposing attempts to politicize the pandemic.

The country’s foreign ministry claims that China has provided assistance to over 150 countries and 10 international organizations, sent 36 medical teams to 34 countries in need since the outbreak, and offered other countries more than 200 billion masks, 2 billion protective suits, and 800 million testing kits, reported Xinhua.

China also pledged to make its vaccine available to the world for “global public good”, and joined the WHO-led COVAX initiative, in a bid to ensure vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.

At least 24 nations had signed deals with Chinese companies hoping to get affordable and quick vaccine supplies, with most of them being low- and middle-income countries. China’s state media pursued a power campaign in favor of the vaccine while denigrating the reliability of the vaccines made by western countries.

But the ground report presents a gloomy picture. Many countries have complained of late deliveries of the vaccine. Also, it is widely believed that Chinese vaccines are the least effective against the virus, which has resulted in backlash from many countries, where the public lambasted their governments over signing deals with Chinese companies for vaccine procurement. The governments in the Philippines and Singapore have had to face public ire for choosing to order the vaccine from a Chinese company, Sinovac.

“Right now, I would not take any Chinese vaccine because there’s insufficient data,” said Bilahari Kausikan, an influential former official at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, quoted by The New York Times. Many such public officials say they would ask for more data before seeking the vaccine from any Chinese company.

China’s attempt to secure a geopolitical win, while showcasing the country’s scientific capability and generosity has, therefore, not gone well.

A poll conducted by YouGov in January 2020 showed that most people were suspicious of Chinese vaccines, As many as 19,000 people from 17 countries participated in the survey. The misinformation campaign surrounding Western vaccines could further undermine its image.

On the other hand, India being the world’s largest producer of vaccines has been commended for its efforts in supplying vaccines to many poorer countries. Even when the country’s relations with some of its neighbors have been strained, it has managed to impress them with ‘vaccine diplomacy’.

For example, India’s border row with Nepal has apparently taken a backseat after the latter was offered one million doses of the vaccine in a grant last month. Nepal has started vaccinating frontline health workers with India’s help.

According to the Indian government, since January 20, the country has shipped Covid-19 vaccines to countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Myanmar and has received orders from several others.

This is a battle China can’t win, against India, according to an expert, who added that the latter is called the ‘pharmacy of the world’ for a reason. India accounts for 20 percent of the world’s generic medicine production and meets 62 percent of the global demand for vaccines. From the beginning of the pandemic itself, India has been at the forefront, delivering medicines and generic drugs to other countries.

When the hydroxychloroquine drug came to be known as the possible cure for Covid-19 last year, India received requests from more than 100 countries for the supply of the drug, along with paracetamol (a painkiller). The supplies were delivered to Brazil, the United States, and Israel.

The global commendations poured in as India embarked on the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination drive last month. The Indian companies such as Zydus, Bharat Biotech, and Gennova are working to produce indigenous vaccines, and companies like Serum Institute of India are collaborating with foreign companies, such as AstraZeneca.

The two made-in-India vaccines – Covaxin by Bharat Biotech and Covishield, by Serum Institute showed promising signs of curing the Covid-19 and were used in India and abroad.

India’s vaccine diplomacy has immense potential to mend strategic ties with many nations while building new ties with other countries. India has successfully used its vaccine diplomacy to counter China’s growing influence in its neighborhood. For instance, Bangladesh has recently put a halt to the trials of Chinese-made Sinovac and accepted the Indian vaccine.

Thus, India’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ when pitted against China’s ‘cloud diplomacy’ comes out with flying colors, with India having dominated the global narrative on vaccine aid. China has been openly using such opportunities to broaden its geopolitical ambitions, according to experts, although the attempt has failed this time.

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